Where are the carriers?” That, supposedly, is the question quivering on every President’s lips whenever America needs combat airpower in some distant corner of the world.
Seriously, though, land-based airpower, deployed far forward, more often than not surpasses carrier aviation for sheer combat punch and staying power. The Air Force has a long history of identifying, building, and sustaining such airfields to help the US make the most of all forms of airpower.
And these forward airfields are more important than ever. Modern mobility assets, pre-positioned equipment and supplies, and rapidly deployable engineering units have made it possible to operate from bare bases. Agreements permitting Washington to use foreign bases reduce the need to start from scratch. Forces are trained and equipped to fill craters, remove mines, and build up facilities, making it possible to use captured facilities.
In World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, military engineers perfected airfield construction techniques that allowed aircraft to operate close to the action. In Vietnam, Air Force Prime BEEF (Base Engineer Emergency Forces) and RED HORSE (Rapid Engineers Deployable Heavy Operations Repair Squadron, Engineers) units mastered the art of quickly building and repairing combat airfields.
Withdrawal of US military forces from Vietnam in 1973 did not end the need for forward bases. Acquisition and use of forward air bases in foreign countries is essential if the United States is to continue to exercise airpower as a diplomatic and military instrument. This has been repeatedly proved since Vietnam.
What happens when the US lacks forward bases? Limited access has hindered airpower in a number of post-Vietnam situations. Take, for example, Operation Nickel Grass during the October 1973 Middle East war. (See “Nickel Grass,” December 1998, p. 54.) The Air Force embarked on a major airlift to replenish Israeli ammunition and other war consumables. Allies in Europe, however, denied use of European airfields and airspace for this purpose. Consequently, USAF transports were forced to fly long missions between the United States and Israel, staging only at Lajes Field in the Azores. Flights as long as 28 hours heightened risk and increased aerial refueling requirements.
Something similar happened in 1986 in Operation El Dorado Canyon, the US raid on targets in Libya. (See “El Dorado Canyon,” March 1999, p. 56.) Air Force F-111 pilots flying from Britain could not fly directly over France or Spain because those countries refused to grant overflight rights. Instead, the F-111s flew far south and west to circumvent those nations. It added almost 3,000 miles to the round-trip flights and greatly endangered operational security.
After the disastrous 1980 Desert One rescue attempt in Iran, Washington moved to shore up its access in the Middle East. The US and Egypt arranged biennial training exercises to practice the rapid deployment of fighter units to Egypt and the building of bare bases for operations.
As conflict between Iraq and Iran threatened Persian Gulf oil shipments during the 1980s, President Reagan and the Saudi government arranged for the construction and improvement of Arabian bases to accommodate USAF aircraft. This was not blind support: Saudi Arabia was beginning to purchase many of the same types of aircraft that the US wanted to bed down.
Among the facilities were King Faisal Air Base near Tabuk, and King Khalid Military City near Hafar al Batin. Certain sites on the Arabian Peninsula were partially developed in anticipation of their use in a future crisis.
By 1990, the Department of Defense had collected air-transportable equipment and supplies for making such bare bases operational. Harvest Falcon resources, such as shelters, tents, electrical power generators, and water, were pre-positioned for quick deployment by airlift from Europe to the Persian Gulf region.
The Saudi bases were put to use in Operation Desert Shield, after the Aug. 2, 1990, Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, when the United States led an international coalition to defend Saudi Arabia. Between that date and Jan. 17, 1991—the start of the first Gulf War—nearly 2,000 US aircraft deployed to the theater. The Air Force sent a quarter of its combat inventory to the Persian Gulf, and nearly all of these aircraft bedded down at Saudi bases.
Saudi Arabia agreed to finance construction of facilities for the American and coalition forces on its territory. Air Force RED HORSE engineers, using equipment that had been pre-positioned at Aviano AB, Italy, completed more than 25 projects at 12 sites in the Arabian Peninsula. The largest Saudi base was developed by US and local contractors at al Kharj, just south of Riyadh. In a matter of weeks, it was hosting five fighter squadrons.
In neighboring Bahrain, Air Force RED HORSE and Prime BEEF team engineers constructed a parking ramp, taxiway, revetments, and a mission support area at Shaikh Isa Air Base to accommodate up to 36 fighter aircraft. It was one of the largest construction projects in RED HORSE history and set new records for concrete and asphalt placed in a single day.
In January 1991, Operation Desert Storm began. The forcible eviction of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait began with a weeks-long air campaign against Iraqi forces before the ground invasion that liberated Kuwait. At least 25 coalition air bases in the theater were active in the air campaign. Ten were in Saudi Arabia, seven in the United Arab Emirates, and three in Oman. Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain, and Turkey also hosted coalition aircraft.
Not all of the raids on Iraq came from forward airfields. In 1990, USAF B-52 bombers deployed to the British island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. From there, and other bomber bases in Britain and Spain, B-52s raided Iraq. The longest B-52 raids came from Barksdale AFB, La., almost halfway around the world.
The No-Fly Zones
The United States initiated Operation Provide Comfort in 1991 to protect and provide humanitarian aid to Kurds of northern Iraq. That operation later evolved into the enforcement of a no-fly zone over northern Iraq in an operation called Northern Watch. Incirlik Air Base, a NATO site in Turkey, served as the primary airfield for that operation.
In 1992, the United States established a new no-fly zone over southern Iraq. Most US forces in this operation, dubbed Southern Watch, were originally based at Dhahran and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
In June 1996, terrorists bombed the Khobar Towers housing complex near King Abdul Aziz Air Base, in the Dhahran area. The terror attack left 19 airmen dead and injured hundreds more, many of them critically. That event, and the overall difficulty of providing force protection in an urban area, quickly persuaded Washington to move most of its forces from Dhahran and Riyadh to the secure but desolate facility at al Kharj. The Saudi government, US military engineers, and civilian contractors transformed the old bare base into Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB).
Civilian contractors and units from the 819th and 823rd RED HORSE Squadrons labored on the immense project, which entailed the construction of temperature-controlled TEMPER (Tent, Extendable, Modular, Personnel) tents, roads, dining halls, a gymnasium, a recreation center, a library, and a pool. The Saudi government built a Friendly Forces Housing Complex nearby that could accommodate most of the 5,000 international forces that eventually worked at PSAB.
By the time the base complex was completed in 1999, it had cost the government of Saudi Arabia more than $1 billion and covered well over a hundred square miles. In late July 2001, Prince Sultan Air Base became the headquarters of the Combined Air Operations Center for Joint Task Force-Southwest Asia.
The Khobar Towers bombing also persuaded the US to move its forces to more secure locations in other nations. In Kuwait, airmen deployed from the capital’s international airport to Ahmed al Jaber Air Base. In the United Arab Emirates, they moved from Abu Dhabi to al Dhafra Air Base.
In 1992, an ethnic civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina inspired Operation Provide Promise, an airlift of emergency relief supplies to Sarajevo. For the relief effort, Air Force transports left Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany and staged at Zagreb, Croatia, and Aviano. Besides landing at the Sarajevo Airport, they also dropped supplies to refugees in the countryside.
In 1994, USAF engineers from the 823rd RED HORSE Squadron constructed tent cities at Tuzla AB, Hungary, to facilitate Operation Deny Flight, the NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Bosnia.
The next year, Air Force units began moving into Falconara AB, Italy, where NATO supplies destined for Sarajevo were stockpiled. That year, USAF forces at Aviano and other bases in Italy took part in Operation Deliberate Force, an intense NATO air campaign against Serb forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina that resulted in a December peace agreement. (See “Deliberate Force,” October 1997, p. 37.)
Unfortunately, things would not stay quiet in the Balkans. In 1999, NATO began the Allied Force air campaign against Serbia. The 78-day air war compelled the Serbs to withdraw their troops from Kosovo province, allow United Nations troops to replace them, and permit ethnic Albanians to return to their homes.
At the beginning of OAF, coalition forces used 10 bases in five European countries. By the end of Allied Force on June 10, coalition forces operated from 22 air bases in eight countries: six in Italy, four each in Germany and the United Kingdom, two each in France, Hungary, and Turkey, and one each in Spain and Greece.
The many bases gave NATO the ability to strike Serbia from all directions, around the clock.
In support of Allied Force, RED HORSE engineers constructed a taxiway almost 1,000 feet long, a C-17 ramp, aircraft parking and marshalling areas, a medical evacuation helicopter pad, and a tent city at Tirana, Albania.
Air Force engineers also constructed tent cities in Italy and Turkey. Teams from the 823rd RED HORSE Squadron repaired Taszar Air Base in Hungary and renovated dormitories at Birgi AB, Italy.
Allied Force proved the utility of having bases available for every potential contingency or combat theater, to shorten the time between crisis and response. The Air Force began to build an Employment Knowledge Base, a database of site surveys that would be useful for future contingencies.
At the end of the 20th century, the Pentagon reconsidered its overseas basing strategy. In 1999, the United States agreed with Germany to close Rhein-Main Air Base, once the most important USAF airlift hub in Europe, to allow for expansion of Frankfurt’s airport.
Yet large, loaded transports were rarely flying more than 3,500 miles at a time, and staging bases remained important on long routes between the United States and Southwest Asia. To compensate for the loss of Rhein-Main, USAF engineers expanded and upgraded other German bases at Ramstein and Spangdahlem. Turkey’s Incirlik also became an airlift hub.
Defense Department planners also considered new forward bases in Eastern Europe and Western Asia as alternatives to the Cold War bases.
In October 2001, President Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom against Taliban and al Qaeda forces in remote Afghanistan. As in earlier operations against Iraq and Serbia, OEF involved not only long-range air raids from the United States, but also a network of theater air bases.
RED HORSE elements deployed to Qatar to construct a major air base there from what was initially little more than a runway. Nicknamed “Camp Andy” after Air Force MSgt. Evander E. Andrews who died there in a forklift accident, the site began as a tent city and quickly grew into al Udeid Air Base.
Before long it boasted a 15,000-foot runway and enough paving to cover 18 football fields. Al Udeid soon became home to some two dozen KC-135 and KC-10 tankers that provided in-flight refueling for combat fighters and bombers on the way to Afghanistan.
At al Dhafra in the UAE, the 820th Expeditionary RED HORSE Squadron completed a concrete parking ramp covering more than a million square feet. The ramp was more than 44,000 square feet larger than a ramp at Phan Rang AB, Vietnam, the previous record holder. As of 2002, RED HORSE construction projects for OEF cost an estimated $90 million, the largest collection of military labor projects since Vietnam.
Despite the construction of these new air bases, the Air Force still lacked adequate staging bases for the airlift Enduring Freedom required. The demand was alleviated by a side effect of the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Former Soviet republics in south central Asia offered the United States overflight, refueling, landing rights, and airfield facilities for operations against the Taliban. Former Soviet military bases and airports provided an existing air base infrastructure. The most important of these were Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan and Karshi-Khanabad (K-2) Air Base in Uzbekistan, both of which became USAF air hubs after extensive construction.
Military airfields and civilian airports within Afghanistan, some constructed by Soviet military forces in the 1980s, also became available to coalition air forces, after ground forces secured territory in-country.
Bagram, Kandahar, Kabul, Shindand, and Mazar-e-Sharif were among the new locations that have become part of the Air Force heritage. RED HORSE engineers improved and adapted the airfields to handle the influx of US personnel and military aircraft.
After the fall of the Taliban government, the Air Force maintained warplanes in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan because of lingering al Qaeda and Taliban resistance in the mountainous border region near Pakistan. The service also transferred a number of tankers from Germany to Bulgaria, nearer the midpoint of the long deployment route to central Asia.
B-1B bombers, meanwhile, moved from Diego Garcia to Oman, shortening the round-trip flight to southeastern Afghanistan by thousands of miles. From Oman, Lancers could conduct around-the-clock patrols over the remaining hostile areas.
Last year, the Uzbekistan government ordered US forces to leave K-2 because of a diplomatic dispute. The eviction increased USAF reliance on Manas and Bagram. At Bagram, RED HORSE engineers began replacing 60,000 square meters of ramp space with improved pavement.
Beginning in 2003, for Operation Iraqi Freedom the Air Force deployed nearly 55,000 personnel and 863 aircraft, including 293 fighters, 182 tankers, and 111 transports.
Before OIF began, US forces were already serving at bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. The two most important air bases were PSAB in Saudi Arabia, where the CAOC was originally located, and al Udeid in Qatar, where the air operations center moved later in the year.
As in Desert Storm in 1991, Diego Garcia served as an important bomber and tanker base for operations against Baghdad, as it was less than a six-hour flight away. Both B-2s and B-52s were stationed there.
Among other significant airfields were al Jaber AB, Kuwait, and Shaikh Isa AB, Bahrain. At Thumrait Air Base in Oman, RED HORSE engineers in six months built a 47-acre parking ramp along with taxiways, lighting, and blast deflectors.
The large number of coalition airfields once again allowed coalition air forces to strike the enemy from multiple directions, around the clock.
As US and coalition forces advanced into enemy territory, airfields within Iraq became as important as those outside the country. Airborne RED HORSE teams landed at Iraqi airfields to clear obstacles, eliminate mines, repair damage, and install equipment. They also deployed to barren locations to prepare helicopter and airplane landing areas.
A Global Assessment Team opened newly acquired airfields, using 21 Harvest Falcon kits to develop bare bases. Air Force engineers recovered the airfield at Ali Base and cleared the runways at Baghdad Airport.
Friendly forces immediately used seized bases to leapfrog into Iraq. In the case of Ali, then called Tallil, flight operations began just four days after the first airman arrived, while hundreds of hungry wild dogs still roamed the compound.
In the Kurdish area of northern Iraq, USAF repaired three airfields for C-130 missions. Al Walid (H-3) airfield in western Iraq, with two 10,000-foot runways, became as important to the attackers as it had been to the defenders. Other new sites, such as Balad and Kirkuk, became even more important after Baghdad Airport reopened for commercial air traffic.
In the first half of 2005, the Air Force activated two contingency response wings and three contingency response groups. These units train and rapidly deploy the personnel needed to quickly open airfields in remote locations. If there is any sure thing in life, it is this: They will be busy—and soon.
Daniel L. Haulman is a historian at the Air Force Historical Research Agency. He is the author of three books, including The United States Air Force and Humanitarian Airlift Operations, 1947-1994 and One Hundred Years of Flight: USAF Chronology of Significant Air and Space Events, 1903-2002. He also has contributed to numerous Air Force publications. This is his first article for Air Force Magazine.